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Hammer v. City of Sun Valley

Supreme Court of Idaho

December 21, 2016

SHARON R. HAMMER, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
CITY OF SUN VALLEY; NILS RIBI; and DeWAYNE BRISCOE, Defendants-Respondents.

         2016 Opinion No. 149

         Appeal from the District Court of the Fifth Judicial District of the State of Idaho, in and for Blaine County. Hon. Jonathan P. Brody, District Judge.

         The judgment of the district court is affirmed.

          Wyatt Johnson, Angstman Johnson, Boise, argued for appellant.

          Kirtlan Naylor, Naylor and Hales, P.C., Boise, argued for respondent.

          EISMANN, Justice.

         This is an appeal out of Blaine County from a judgment dismissing the Plaintiff's lawsuit seeking to recover under the Idaho Protection of Public Employees Act. The district court ruled that the Plaintiff had waived her claim against the City of Sun Valley pursuant to a release she had signed and that the Act did not provide a cause of action against City officials. We affirm the district court.

         I.

         Factual Background.

         On June 1, 2008, Sharon R. Hammer ("Plaintiff") began working as the City Administrator for the City of Sun Valley ("City") pursuant to a written employment agreement ("Employment Agreement"). On November 8, 2011, DeWayne Briscoe defeated the incumbent mayor, Wayne Willich, in the mayoral election. On November 10, 2011, the City's city council conducted a special executive session to discuss allegations of improper use of public funds and equipment by the Plaintiff. The following day, her husband, an attorney, sent a letter to Mayor Willich threatening litigation. On November 18, 2011, the City placed the Plaintiff on paid administrative leave, and three days later her husband filed a lawsuit on her behalf against the City and members of city government. Following an investigation, Plaintiff resumed her duties on December 27, 2011, and no disciplinary action was taken.

         On January 3, 2012, Mr. Briscoe was sworn in as the mayor. The next day, he placed the Plaintiff on paid administrative leave and notified her of another investigation. On January 12, 2012, the Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed her pending lawsuit against the City and members of city government. On January 19, 2012, the Plaintiff was terminated from employment based upon the unanimous vote of the Mayor and city council.

         The Employment Agreement provided that the Mayor could terminate the Plaintiff's employment without cause after consulting with each member of the city council. It further provided that if the termination was without cause, the Plaintiff was entitled to severance pay, and that if she was terminated for cause, she was not entitled to severance pay. Finally, it provided that the severance pay would be the Plaintiff's "sole exclusive remedy for any and all claims for damages of any kind arising from a termination without cause, " that she "waives her right to bring a claim of any kind for damages against Employer [the City] arising from a termination without cause, " and that "receipt of the severance payment is subject to execution of a release of all claims against the City of Sun Valley." On January 23, 2012, Plaintiff signed a "Supplemental Release Pursuant to City Administrator Employment Agreement" (Supplemental Release), which was drafted by her husband and which released claims against the City upon receipt of the severance payment. The City paid the Plaintiff the severance payment provided for in the Employment Agreement.

         On June 29, 2012, the Plaintiff filed this action against the City and ten individuals in their official capacities as city officials or employees. On June 29, 2012, she filed an amended complaint naming as defendants the City; Mr. Briscoe, the current mayor; and Nils Ribi, a current member of the city council. The district court dismissed this case as to all Defendants, and the Plaintiff timely appealed.

         II.

         Did the District Court Err in Granting the City's Motion for Summary Judgment?

         When reviewing on appeal the granting of a motion for summary judgment, we apply the same standard used by the trial court in ruling on the motion. Infanger v. City of Salmon, 137 Idaho 45, 46-47, 44 P.3d 1100, 1101-02 (2002). We construe all disputed facts, and draw all reasonable inferences from the record, in favor of the non-moving party. Id. at 47, 44 P.3d at 1102. Summary judgment is appropriate only if the evidence in the record and any admissions show that there is no genuine issue of any material fact regarding the issues raised in the pleadings and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. If the evidence reveals no disputed issues of material fact, then only a question of law remains, over which this Court exercises free review. Id.

         In her amended complaint, the Plaintiff asserted a single cause of action pursuant to the Idaho Protection of Public Employees Act ("IPPEA"), Idaho Code sections 6-2101, et seq., for retaliatory discharge. The City moved for summary judgment on the ground that her action against the City was barred by the Supplemental Release. That document provides:

Upon payment of the severance payment required pursuant to Section 3.A. of the City Administrator Employment Agreement dated June 1, 2008, I release the City Of Sun Valley for any claims defined in Section 3.A. of the City Administrator Employment Agreement as were intended when the City Administrator Employment Agreement was entered into on June 1, 2008.

         The Supplemental Agreement stated that the Plaintiff released "any claims defined in Section

         3.A. of the City Administrator Employment Agreement."

         Section 3.A. of the Employment Agreement stated:

SECTION 3. TERMINATION AND SEVERANCE PAY
A. Employer, acting through the Mayor, may terminate Employee's employment, without cause, for any reason or no reason. Any such decision to terminate shall occur only after the Mayor consults with each member of the City Council. Upon such termination, Employer shall pay Employee, as severance pay, a lump sum cash payment equal to six (6) months, base salary described in Section 5, Subsection A.
The severance payment herein is intended to be Employee's sole exclusive remedy for any and all claims for damages of any kind arising from a termination without cause and such severance payment is hereby agreed to be reasonable, fair and equitable by both parties to this Agreement. Accordingly, Employee waives her right to bring a claim of any kind for damages against Employer arising from a termination without cause. Consequently, receipt of the severance payment is subject to execution of a release of all claims against the City of Sun Valley. A termination without cause shall not entitle Employee to an informal review under any section of the City of Sun Valley Personnel manual ("Personnel Manual").

         It is undisputed that the Plaintiff received the severance payment in the amount required. In addition, Section 3.B. of the Employment Agreement provides, "In the event Employee is terminated for 'cause', then Employer shall not be obligated to make any severance payment to Employee."

         The Plaintiff contends that the severance payment she received was for past services and, therefore, there was no consideration for the release of any claims. "Whether a contract is ambiguous is a question of law over which we exercise free review." Howard v. Perry, 141 Idaho 139, 142, 106 P.3d 465, 468 (2005). The Plaintiff states on appeal, "The Supplemental Release is clear on its face, and is not ambiguous." We agree. "If the contract is clear and unambiguous, the determination of the contract's meaning and legal effect are questions of law, and the meaning of the contract and intent of the parties must be determined from the plain meaning of the contract's own words." City of Idaho Falls v. Home Indem. Co., 126 Idaho 604, 607, 888 P.2d 383, 386 (1995). (Citation omitted).

         The district court correctly stated:

The release [Supplemental Agreement] operates to "release the City of Sun Valley for any claims defined in Section 3.A. of the City Administrator Employment Agreement." When looking to Section 3.A. of plaintiff's employment agreement, it unambiguously provides that "severance payment herein is intended to be Employee's sole exclusive remedy for any and all claims for damages of any kind arising from a termination without cause." It also goes on to say that "[c]onsequently, receipt of the severance payment is subject to a release of all claims against the City of Sun Valley."

         The use of the term "severance payment" does not necessarily mean that it is compensation for past services. In Parker v. Underwriters Labs., Inc., 140 Idaho 517, 96 P.3d 618 (2004), an employee was entitled to receive "enhanced severance benefits" upon termination if she signed a release which released her employer "from any and all claims of any kind relating to or arising out of [her] employment or termination of that employment." Id. at 521, 96 P.3d at 622. This Court held that the "enhanced severance benefits" received by the employee did not constitute "severance pay" in the sense of " '[a] sum of money usually based on length of employment for which an employee is eligible upon termination.' " Id. at 520, 522, 96 P.3d at 621, 623. Rather, her "consideration for the agreement was not services but the release of any claim that she might have against [her employer] relating to her employment or termination." Id. at 522, ...


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